This is an exploratory article, about our future. It will not contain many specific statements as this is not the goal, but to start a discussion about our impending future. The time when people will leave Earth is getting closer every day, but nobody really talks about it. We are still not realising how close we are to achieving our goals of becoming a multi-planetary species. The thought of colonies on other planets, space tourism or asteroid mining is still a thing of science fiction. However, once we start conquering the unknown, there is no way back and the development will be so fast that most of us will not be able to keep up with it. I think it is time to start a proper discussion about our future and we should seriously consider talking about what awaits us or how we can overcome problems, especially societal problems. I hope that this will not be just a single article, but a long chain of discussions about as many possible aspects of a spacefaring civilisation as possible. We are on the brink of the planetary revolution, or we are already in it. Only time can tell where the starting point of it will be defined.
The term “planetary revolution” is a rarely used expression to describe the next step for human civilisation, our quest to conquer the stars. This term is not yet widely used, as it also refers to the movement of celestial bodies around the sun. However, coining this term would be beneficial to talk about the start of a new era, that is often overlooked, as it seems to be a future event, still far away ahead of us. But it is time to start talking about a future that has been overlooked and is ever closer to becoming reality. The next revolution in line is just around the corner and when it finally begins, it will happen so rapidly that stirring the course of history will be impossible. If we want to have a grip on our future and take matters into our own hands, we must start discussing something very important:
What will happen when we leave Earth?
First, we had the agricultural revolution, which led humans to settle down and start cultivating the land around them. This led to the start of the human era; the beginning of history. Allowing the food surplus to sustain larger populations and to allow some people to specialise in fields other than agriculture and food production in general. It was not necessarily a beneficial change in every aspect, but it ultimately allowed us to create the world that we know today. Why the change happened is still contested among experts, but for some reason it did. For a very long time, at least on a historical timescale, nothing happened after the agricultural revolution.
Then came 1769 when the first spinning frame was patented. This invention blasted the textile industry to production levels unforeseen before. It kickstarted the industrial revolution along with countless other inventions at that time, probably the most important among them the steam engine. Thanks to the power of machines, industrial production skyrocketed, and the widely available products provided many people with a better life. Just as with the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution brought terrible times upon workers for a while. Still, many people were either forced to move into cities and start working in factories as the agricultural sector shrank or they willingly chose to work in factories. Although it was a very bad time to be a worker, without basically any regulations on what is allowed and what is not, it still allowed people luxuries that they could not afford before. The industrial revolution, just like the agricultural revolution, brought a lot of suffering for many, but at last, it allowed humans to reach wealth unprecedented before. The population boomed and within about 150 years the number of people grew from one billion to eight billion.
The next step will be the planetary revolution, but before we go further, we have to mention a few things. These revolutions are not singular events that happen and change everything from that point on. There are communities around the world that do not practice agriculture and half of the world is still industrialising. Some of these advancements just came at the right time when they found fertile ground to sprout and blossom. However, it would be foolish to assume that we are always developing, and we never fall back. No, this is absolutely not the case. We do not have many – if any – records from the time of the agricultural revolution, but it is safe to assume that before those communities who succeeded with this practice, countless others had failed. Just as empires rise and fall, so do practices. It probably took several trials to get agriculture right and for the first permanent settlement to be created and for it to able to thrive. The same is the case with the industrial revolution. Many still do not know, but the ancient Greeks have already invented the steam engine – not a modern one though. Atomism, the idea that everything is made up of small particles is often credited to Leucippus, who lived approximately in the early 5th century BCE.
Ideas are rarely completely new. Jules Verne had already travelled to the Moon in 1865 in his novel From the Earth to the Moon, long before the first rockets were even made thought of. Although ideas exist, there are technological or philosophical limitations to the advancement of science that holds it back. On the one hand, some convictions can hold back the development of science. Just to bring a controversial example: experiments on humans made huge contributions to society and science, but they came with a huge cost, that can be measured in human lives. Nowadays, it is fortunately unethical to conduct research on human beings, but there were times when this was not an issue. We still rely on some of these controversial experiments to this day because of how valuable insights they provided us. In some ways this is a conviction that holds science back, I would say for the better, but nonetheless, the ethical boundaries hinder scientific development. This is the harder concept to understand and the one that is harder to argue with as convictions are usually the foundations of our social constructs. On the other hand, there is the problem of technological limitations. Sometimes the time is just not right for development to take place. The ancient Greek steam engine could not have served as a true engine. Although the principle was there, other technologies were missing to allow the start of an ancient industrial revolution.
The planetary revolution is the same thing. We have been to the Moon for the first time in 1969 and the last time when a human set foot on another celestial body was in 1972. Only now, more than fifty years later will the next planned moon landing take place no earlier than 2024, during the Artemis 2 mission. During the Apollo missions, the time was simply not right to start the planetary revolution. At that time the most important thing was the space race, which boosted scientific development, but it was not induced by true motivation, but rather vanity. The question might arise: what is true motivation then?
Examining history will give us the answer. We are capable of realising that we are at a point in history where a new revolution is coming. The previous revolutions just happened and in hindsight, they were named, but when they were happening, almost nobody could foresee what was to come. This is not the situation now, as we know that a revolution is near. We might not be able to predict the future, but the fact that we are aware of what is ahead of us gives us a great advantage that our forefathers did not have. We know what expectations and predictions of the future were like in, let’s say, the early 1900s and we also know what they turned out to be. We can analyse our thinking to make better predictions of the future, which in turn allows us to make better plans.
As for the question of what motivates us: we can say that most of the time the reasons are economical. As long as there is no perceived value in something, people will not be interested in it. I call it perceived value because many long-term investments are just seemingly not worth it. Only a handful of people are both motivated and foresighted enough to make such investments because they also need the financial capabilities for it. No matter what people think about Elon Musk, in hindsight we can say that he almost singlehandedly kickstarted a new space race, mostly in the private sector. While among nations we can observe the rise of space programs around the world to compete with each other. However, Musk’s contributions should not be underestimated regarding this question. On the level of nations, space programmes are mostly research or vanity projects to compete with each other, like during the Cold War. But now we have economic incentives too, to pursue these goals.
During the Apollo missions, space travel was far more expensive than today. Although it was beneficial for science there was not much economic value in it. It was like trying to use a fusion reactor today. It kind of works and there is immense potential in the technology, but it is just far too costly and inefficient to make it economically viable. So, people continue researching the technology before they find any solutions to use it efficiently. Another example could be colonialism. Some colonies were worthless as long as some important resource was not found or could be grown at the location. Some of these resources were not even known at the time, for example, crude oil. It was used since ancient times, but it was also easily replaceable for what it was used for, like illumination or heating. But as other alternative oils became scarce and the necessary technology to extract crude oil from the ground became available people realised its potential. Later, new inventions came by, like the automobile, for which petroleum turned out to be a great fuel. Alaska was a worthless territory for the Russians as the valuable resources of the time were not available there. The USA bought the land for almost nothing, but later on, they found oil in the ground, and it became extremely valuable. Not even mentioning its geopolitically important location which only became valuable during the Cold War.
Sometimes it is just not the right time to start something. The colonisation of space was just not worth it during the Apollo missions, but by now there is worth in it. At that time there were not many things that would have required us to go to space to gather resources. But in the information era, we have a lot of instruments that require materials that are quite rare on Earth. This combined with the ever-growing demand for such items creates scarcity on Earth and we have to find new ways to provide for the needs of the people. This is the time when the needs, the technology and all the other driving factors of a revolution are starting to coincide. We are entering an era where we are not just able to go to space, but we must.
According to NASA, the reason we must go to space now is for the survival of mankind. The pandemic and natural and man-made catastrophes made it necessary to make mankind a multi-planet species, while the advancements we made in the past decades gave us a better understanding of the cosmos. Turns out we were rushing back in the days of the Apollo project. We were not ready to leave yet, but that early era of space exploration started something much more important. The first satellite was launched by the Soviet Union in 1957. By 2021 there were 4,877 active satellites in space and we have launched more than 12,000 objects into space so far. In recent years the speed with which we launch things into space has accelerated. Since 2010, the number of objects launched into space has doubled. Satellites were much more useful at the time than space colonisation. The Moon was too much to ask for back in the day, but we did not give up, we just needed a bit more time to establish our presence in the vicinity of Earth and to refine our technologies. But the two most important achievements of this era were the permanent human presence in space thanks to the now two fully operational space stations: the International Space Station and the Tiangong Space Station. From the start of the new millennium, there were humans in space continuously. We still have a long way to go, but our journey to conquer the stars is just beginning and it is amazing to be present to see the achievements we will make.
There are unlimited options in space and although most of them sound unfeasible now, we must keep in mind that once we start, there is no going back. Just like with other revolutions in our history, the first moon base will be created, our lives will be changed drastically. There are a lot of aspects we have to talk about, but this article is only an introduction to what the planetary revolution will bring. There is terraforming, asteroid mining, spaceports, discoveries, new political systems, new economic opportunities, and things we cannot even imagine yet.
There are already plans to colonise every terrestrial celestial body in our solar system. We all know about the colonisation of Mars as it is the most Earth-like planet in the solar system. However, it is also theoretically possible to colonise the Moon or even Venus and other bodies too. But we should not run so ahead of ourselves. Colonisation is not the first step, and it might not even be all that useful. There are several problems with a long-term presence in space, but as a layman, I see gravity as the greatest reason which will prevent humans from ever living on other planets. Low gravity can cause a lot of damage to the human body even in a relatively short period. Human physiology is not suited for such environments and what is even more questionable is the possibility of pregnancy or giving birth. According to NASA scientists, it is possible to conceive a child in space, but giving birth to a healthy offspring is much more problematic. As long as we do not try it, we cannot know, so we can only theorise. Until the first colonists do not try to give birth in space and on other planets, we will not know what can happen.
In my opinion, this will be a deciding factor in the future of humanity. If childbirth is linked to gravity, then I suppose that human presence on other planets will be very limited and certainly not permanent. Maybe on Earth-like planets, the conditions could be right for humans to live, but even then, the possibilities are limited. Although there can be future technologies or solutions that could solve such issues which could allow humans to live on other extra-terrestrial bodies. However, even if humans cannot live on other planets, space colonisation is still a possibility. Even if we cannot simulate Earth-like gravity on another planet, we can certainly do so on space stations. There are several methods that scientists came up with that could simulate gravity, but the most obvious and simple ones are all connected to centrifugal force. There are several limitations still ahead of us in terms of space travel, but most problems can be solved through technological advancements. Albeit these will be very costly ventures at first, this is the case with every novelty in the world. But with time, the costs will decrease drastically, just like the cost of launching a rocket has decreased a lot since the first rockets we created. All in all, if people cannot live on other planets, living on space stations is still very much a possibility. Human presence on unsuitable celestial bodies might be limited to short periods and crews might have to rotate, while reproduction might be done on space stations instead of on other planets.
Despite the promising future, it will not be science or vanity that takes us on ventures into space, but rather money. The first people in space are always scientists as they are the ones that can make examinations and can pioneer the possibilities for permanent settlements. This was the case with colonisation on Earth too, but of course, instead of scientists, we had explorers. The first settlements were quickly abandoned, as they were merely expeditions. Then permanent settlements were founded that were highly dependent on their respective motherlands and many of them failed. The final step was for these settlements to become self-sufficient. One thing was almost always common: the settlements were founded to export things back to the motherland. This will be similar in space too and our first journeys will not lead to distant planets, but rather to asteroids in our vicinity.
Our modern world requires resources, minerals and materials that are rare on Earth. This incentivises leaving Earth to mine these resources somewhere else. Somewhere where these resources are so abundant that they will almost become worthless. Asteroids contain immense amounts of resources in such quantities that are unimaginable on Earth. Asteroid mining is still costly, but there are ways to get small, but valuable asteroids near Earth and dismantle them. When we have the resources needed, we just have to get them back to Earth and process them. Right now, building entire factories in space is unrealistic, so we have to get everything back to Earth to do something with them. However, with time will be able to move everything up to space and only finished products will be transported back to Earth. This will be helped by the decreasing price of resources with every round we make in space. The greatest challenge is constantly escaping Earth’s gravity, but soon our woes might go away.
You see, the Moon is not just important for science, but it will also serve as a spaceport. The Moon has a lot weaker gravity than Earth and it is much easier to launch things and land them safely. It might never become a second home for us, but rather a workplace, a dock, a launchpad to use to go on adventures much farther away. But that is not all, as there are already theoretical projects that could solve most of our problems. We have to keep in mind that we are still guessing what the future will be and even experts do not agree on what the proper solution will be. There are still a lot of arguments going on as new technologies are expensive, and a single failure can lead to huge losses, and everybody tries to avoid that. But we are getting closer to the point where we will return to the Moon and when we will mine our first asteroid. These might seem to be decades away, but it only takes one revelation for our civilisation to see how valuable it is, and the decades will become years or months.
Scepticism is very strong in humans, and we should learn from our past. There are a lot of useless ideas that will take us nowhere but promise a lot. So, we have to be careful about what we believe in. However, we should not be sceptical about everything. In 1903, when the Wright brothers made their first flight, the New York Times predicted that it will take 10 million years to develop proper aeroplanes. It took only 30 years to produce the first aeroplane that we would consider a conventional commercial one, the Boeing 247. But aeroplanes themselves were used much earlier than that and decent ones had been created just years after the first flight of the Wright brothers. And just 66 years after that, we were able to send the first human to the Moon in 1969.
I am going to say, that we are terrible at guessing how fast we can develop things, and this is exactly why I am writing this article. There can indeed be unforeseen breakthroughs that can speed up the process of development, but the argument still stands. Proper space travel might seem to be a thing of the far future, but it is not, it will be here very soon. I cannot say when the explosion in investment will start, but I certainly know, that once it starts everything will speed up drastically. It takes only one successful mission to kickstart the planetary revolution and once that happens there is no going back. My goal is to start the discussion about our future as soon as we can so we will have ideas on what to do once we stand in the gateway of the unknown.
There is still a lot to say, but it is much more logical to dive into the individual parts separately in further articles. In this short text, we could not even discuss what effects will this revolution have on society and what are the possible outcomes of it all. What if we are not alone? What if we are the first spacefaring civilisation? What if we are the only ones? There are so many questions that we can only theorise about, but the most important thing now is to realise how close we are to becoming a spacefaring civilisation. We have even tested the first planetary defence system recently, so we might be closer to achieving our goals than we think.
The first space tourist has already made his journey into space in 2001. Just 20 years later the first crew with no professional astronauts made their way to space in 2021. Recently on the 16th of November 2022 Artemis-1 was launched. The exact start of the planetary revolution remains a mystery, but it is certain that once it starts it will only take a few years maybe a decade for humanity to put serious effort into becoming a spacefaring civilisation. Until then, all we can do is discuss, debate and theorise about our future and accept the fact that soon we will leave our cradle to venture into the unknown to take our rightful place among the stars.